Texts: Luke 1:39-56
This sermon was accompanied with a violin playing “My soul cries out,” Sing the Story 124, and vocals singing “Taste and see,” Sing the Journey 86.
Three months ago we were at Camp Luz for fall retreat. After a heavy rain on Friday, it was a lovely weekend to be outside. As usual, we played, ate, sang, talked, and ate some more. Three of us rode our bikes the 100 miles from Westerville to Camp Luz, on the Ohio to Erie trail, rather proud of ourselves and a little surprised for having made it with no major problems. On Sunday Jim Leonard reflected on congregational life. Joe Mas and Linda Mercadante shared thoughts on hiking the Camino in Spain, a lifelong goal fulfilled, a pilgrimage. After the service, we cleaned up and headed home. Pulling out from Ravine Lodge, with my own and another bike strapped to the back of our minivan, I backed directly into a tree. It bent the front wheel of one bike, and the frame of my new road bike. After the somber 100 mile drive home, I took them both to the bike shop. Two days later we celebrated Ila’s sixth birthday.
That was three months ago.
A lot happens in three months. The weather has changed. An election has come and gone. We turn the calendar, people have birthdays and anniversaries. Kids get a little older and taller. Bikes get ridden, bent, fixed, and ridden again. Then suspended in the garage, waiting for warmer days.
Three months was also the length of our summer Sabbatical. I suppose a lot happened then, too, but the best part of a Sabbatical is what doesn’t happen. An extended time away from the normal routine. Time to rest, to restore, time to be intentionally unproductive. On Sabbatical, time is much less linear. For a while there I was losing track of time. What day is it? Sunday? Oh my. When the Lilly Foundation is paying for it, it’s time to eat lots of good food you didn’t prepare yourself. Time to take stock of where one’s at in life. As Luke says of Mary, time to “ponder these things in your heart.” Prepare to re-engage with a fresh perspective.
In his Gospel, Luke tells the story of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Of Elizabeth hosting her cousin Mary at a crucial point in both their lives. Luke writes, “And Mary stayed with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Elizabeth, as we’ve already been told, is the daughter and wife of a priest, herself a descendant of the priestly house of Aaron. She was nearing the end of her child bearing years. In Luke’s way of phrasing it, she was “getting on in years.” And she’s childless, cause for great distress for a first century Jewish woman. But she became pregnant with a boy they would name John, who was later known as John the Baptizer. A reformer. A prophet. A martyr.
Elizabeth is in her sixth month of pregnancy when Mary becomes pregnant. Our modern minds may have trouble accepting a virgin pregnancy scenario, but this much seems to be clear enough. Mary is young, having just become eligible to be married, likely in her early to mid-teenage years. And Mary is pregnant. And Joseph, to whom she is to be married, is not the father.
This is bad, bad news for a first century Jewish girl. Cause for great distress. To dishonor one’s family’s name. Had Joseph wanted to push the letter of the law, he could have had her stoned. According to Luke, Mary doesn’t stick around to find out her fate. She sets out from Nazareth ‘with haste,’ in Luke’s words, to a Judean town in the hill country. The home of Elizabeth. “And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.” Pregnant Elizabeth hosts pregnant Mary in her home, for three months.
In the first month Mary caught her breath. How long of a journey had it been from Nazareth to the Judean hills, to Elizabeth’s house? At least 80 miles, perhaps 100. No day trip, no paved trail with leafy canopy. No carbon fiber forked road bike, or internal combustion engine. This was the pilgrims route to Jerusalem, only further yet. A camino for feet, and, if you’re lucky, a slow animal to carry bundles or bodies. Finally, finally, Mary arrived at the home of Elizabeth and caught her breath. Rested her feet, slept under a roof for the first time in a week.
In the first month Elizabeth was a priest. For Mary, the angel’s voice was already fading – It’s assurance that the life within her was holy. The life within her was holy. She had repeated this to herself, trying to convince herself it was true. There was another, more obvious way to interpret this pregnancy. That it was a curse. That this brought disgrace on the men of her family, her husband to be. Shame on her. And her son would be stigmatized from the start, as illegitimate. A burden too heavy for anyone to carry throughout life. An angel’s assurance is little comfort against human cruelty. Mary needed a priest. To distinguish between the sacred and the profane, between curse and blessing. To speak human words with authority. For Mary, Elizabeth became a priest. When they greeted one another, the holy life within Elizabeth recognized the holy life within Mary, signaled this with a swift kick in Elizabeth’s gut. From this place of knowing, Elizabeth’s first words, first words to come out of her mouth, are words of priestly blessing: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed in the fruit of your womb.” Not cursed are you, doomed are you, unclean are you. But blessed are you. Blessed are you, and your child. So declares Elizabeth, of the priestly line of Aaron.
In the first month, Elizabeth prepared a special meal. She and Mary sitting down to eat. Eating for themselves, and eating for the life they carried inside them. Eating for 2, for 4, for the 5000 who would one day go out to the wilderness to hear Mary’s son — Hungry for grace, for salvation, and for bread. This small loaf broken and blessed and shared between two, and four, and 5000. And there was more than enough for everyone.
In the first month, Mary rested. She made herself at home.
In the second month Mary imaged herself as Hannah, Elizabeth as Sarah. Sarah who had born a child for Abraham, for herself, in her advanced years. Who had given up on her body, and laughed, laughed, at the prospect that it had anything to offer the world. Sarah who had labored and birthed Isaac, whose name means laughter. Whose child and grandchildren became the ancestors of all Jewish people. Sarah, their mother. Elizabeth, advanced in years, unexpectedly pregnant, now like a mother to Mary.
And Mary was Hannah. Hannah who faithfully made pilgrimage to the old shrine in Shiloh. Hannah, who, in her heart, gave her child away to the priesthood, before he was even born. Hannah whose son Samuel grew in wisdom and stature and guided his people into a new era of kings, and the prophets who called them to account. Hannah, the poet, who, upon leaving her young child, newly weaned, in the temple where he would grow and she would know him only through her yearly pilgrimage, proclaimed: “My heart exults in Yahweh; my strength is exalted in Adonai….The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.”
Sarah and Hannah, lives separated by almost a millennium, now united in spirit, under one roof. Elizabeth and Mary.
In the second month, Elizabeth prepared a simple meal, she and Mary sitting down to eat. Mary looked up from her bread and smiled, saying, “Adonai has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” “What?” said Elizabeth, distracted. Mary pointed at the bread, pointed at herself, pointed at Elizabeth’s swollen belly. She repeated: “Adonai has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Elizabeth laughed.
In the second month Mary had a dream. She dreamed she had a daughter, much like herself, whom she held, who played as a child. She dreamed what she might get her for her sixth birthday, her seventh, her sixteenth. This daughter would live a traditional life among her family, with her people. She would grow and be married and have children of her own. Mary’s grandchildren. Mary would help provide for them. Mary dreamed she had a daughter who was by her side when she was old and dying, stroking her hair, comforting her, singing her in to the next world. There were no angels in this dream. No “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” No “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” It was Mary’s dream for one night.
In the second month Elizabeth and Mary both lost track of time.
In the third month Mary finally settled on how to begin her song. “My soul magnifies Yahweh, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Magnifies, makes larger. My soul magnifies Yahweh. Adonai was larger in this world because of her. She loved this. She had accepted, decided, that she was, as Elizabeth had declared, blessed. Not only now, but always. She always had been, and always would be blessed. There was nothing that could ever change this one foundational truth. Her song continued: “Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed.” And from this blessedness, the whole world shifted. “Yah has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. Yah has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. Yah has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” So said Hannah of old. So said the young Mary. This was not a dream. What’s is this? Elizabeth asked. This is my fight song said Mary.
In the third month Elizabeth couldn’t sleep. It was her ninth month. She was uncomfortable. The child too large now to have any room to kick. It was time, and Elizabeth was ready.
In the third month they shared a meal. Elizabeth blessed the bread and broke it. She gave it to Mary. Mary ate. Mary put her hand on her middle and spoke to the life forming inside her. She said, “This is my body, which is for you.” Mary drank the cup and whispered, “This is my blood, my covenant with you. As often your heart beats, do so in remembrance of me.”
In the third month, Mary prepared to leave. The hardest pilgrimage to make is the one that takes you back home. But it was time. Mary pondered all these things in her heart.